The welcome ad break

Despite fears within the advertising industry, TV viewers have not been using their digital television recorder boxes to skip ad breaks. In fact, research shows they are actually choosing to watch more

If TV viewers want to avoid ads, they can. It’s never been easier because they have the most intuitive and easy-to-use technology to avoid them: digital television recorder (DTR) devices, such as the Sky Plus box.

The DTR’s arrival sent a ripple of fear through the TV advertising industry. It assumed that, given the choice, consumers would skip ads. However, research shows that, rather than avoiding ads, most DTR homes actually watch more in real time.

People don’t get DTRs to avoid ads; they get them to find content they want to watch. Owners are not militant anti-commercial ad avoiders. The Skyview panel (Sky’s audience panel of 20,000 Sky Digital Homes) shows that, when a home gets Sky Plus, 14% more commercial TV is watched than before (20 minutes more a day), about 87% of viewing is still to live broadcast and, of the viewing that is timeshifted, 44% of ads are watched “as live”. The net effect of all this is that Sky Plus owners see about 6% more ads in real time than they did before they had it

Previous DTR research had only early adopters to examine; people in the first flush of ownership. The shock of the new has now died down and patterns of usage are more established. In this more mature environment, TV marketing body Thinkbox examined hitherto ignored aspects of ownership: emotional context, motivations, the benefits, relationship with TV and advertising, engagement and quality control. The relationship that emerged between owners and their DTRs is one that advertisers (and fundamentalist naysayers) can genuinely learn from.

Thinkbox undertook in-depth, qualitative research during September 2007 of owners of a mix of DTR brands with differing lengths of ownership. Research also included data from viewing diaries and hard-drive exploration. It revealed DTR owners get more out of their TV and have an enlightened, positive view of TV advertising. DTRs provide a sense of quality control that creates a “give and take” relationship with ads. Fast-forwarding ads happens but not every time and is more prevalent when breaks are longer and/or ads are perceived as worse.

DTR viewers engage with ads when they fast-forward through them. The concentration needed to fast forward means it is more appropriate to call it “speed-watching”. Sponsorship bumpers are recalled and seen as useful navigational tools when speed-watching.

Ads are also spotted and rewound to watch fully. Thinkbox found there was a greater appreciation of good ads and of the timeliness of some advertising, especially on live TV: for example retail sales, films and trailers. DTRs renew their owners’ interest in the relevance of advertising.

There will always be a minority who wish for an ad-free media world but the research showed DTR owners were more circumspect. Many acknowledged advertising’s funding role and rejected the notion of paying more for ad-free TV.

DTR owners were also very positive towards the new advertising technologies. Green button advertising (pressing green during an ad to add an extended version to the planner) was seen as useful, in the same way as recording programmes is seen as useful, as it offers the convenience of watching at a more expedient time. They were also warm to the relevance of a “pull” advertising model, which extends the control benefit of a DTR to advertising. Most anticipated increased richness, longer copy ads, more detail, greater relevance and more comparisons.

The research showed DTRs also helped promote domestic harmony. In multi-person households, TV viewing requires a degree of compromise; however DTRs let people record now and watch later. In couples, Thinkbox found that there is an element of “gifting” programmes to partners – recording things they think the other would enjoy. DTRs can bring viewers together rather than fragmenting viewing within the household.

It is also easier for viewers to engage and be loyal to programmes they like with a DTR. For existing series it removes some stresses and strains, including the need to be “there”, the pressure of seeing every episode, the disappointment of missing out and the inconvenience of setting the VHS. For new series it prevents accidental dropping and encourages long-term sticking with a series, especially to longer-run series that require real commitment in busy lives.

Rationally, DTRs allow for indulgence of personal tastes and occasional over-indulgence – for example, using the series link feature and bingeing on a favourite programme. Emotionally, they can be liberating – enabling viewers to watch favourite programmes while other household members are away – and provide a deeper level of gratification, a heightened sense of specialness and indulgence.

DTRs encourage a more engaged attitude to selecting programming. More planning requires more thought and our research highlighted significantly higher levels of interest and response to trailers. This engagement even bleeds into partners’ viewing.

DTRs also increase value perceptions: they soften resentment of subscription fees. Consequently, respondents in the research would say things like “it [the DTR] is the best thing since sliced bread”.

Ultimately, the research showed that, when people have access to the “me-TV” of a DTR, they will still go to the schedules as their first point of call. There will probably be no signs of a desire to avoid TV ads, so long as broadcasters manage the flow and quality of the advertising.

David Brennan, research and strategy director at Thinkbox. contributed to this week’s Insight

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